Pop quiz: Next to tourism, what Florida industry is the state’s largest employer?
The answer isn’t healthcare, transportation, technology or even government. Agriculture is Florida’s second biggest job supplier, according to the University of Florida.
“Two million jobs can be traced to the state’s agriculture, natural resources and related food industries — and not just on our 47,500 farms. Income from $142 billion in annual sales gets spent around the state to create jobs in restaurants, department stores and car dealerships, too,” Jack Payne of the University’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said during a recent media interview.
Despite their importance, farmers and all they support are at the mercy of a multitude of uncontrollable forces.
A year of hard work and investment can be wiped out in an instant by a late-season hurricane, an early frost or an unexpected outbreak of insects or plant disease.
And the ever-looming prospect of a changing climate could be “potentially catastrophic,” according to Payne, as it wreaks havoc on water supplies, soil conditions and land use.
So how do farmers gain some control over the uncontrollable and add stability to the region’s economy?
Crop insurance is key.
Farmers purchase protection from weather disasters and price volatility, while private-sector insurers underwrite policies, verify claims and speed assistance to farmers when it is needed most.
The government, in turn, helps discount premiums to promote farmer participation and shield taxpayers from unbudgeted disaster aid that would be necessary without the private-sector insurance structure.
Crop insurance was long viewed as a tool primarily used by corn, soybean and wheat farmers in the nation’s midsection. But lately, specialty crop participation along the coasts is growing and insurance protection is available on more than 100 different crops nationwide.
More than $1.3 billion in annual insurance protection is being purchased for Florida orange trees alone with another half a billion for nursery crops. And thank goodness farmers are purchasing these policies.
In the back-to-back disaster years of 2004 and 2005, for example, more than $400 million in indemnity checks flowed to farmers in the state to help them pick up the pieces following hurricanes.
More can be done, too, to make insurance even more attractive to Florida’s farming community and help growers buy higher coverage levels to shield against tomorrow’s disasters.
The 2014 Farm Bill took initial steps by strengthening insurance for organic growers and making it more accessible for beginning farmers. Other provisions boosted protection for livestock producers and will help bring new insurance products to the marketplace.
From Feb. 8-11, leaders from the crop insurance industry, American agriculture and the federal government will be at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort in Bonita Springs to discuss risk protection in the 21st century and what can be done to continually improve the system.
Among the key discussion points: Keeping crop insurance affordable for all farmers regardless of their size or planting choices; ensuring widespread availability of insurance across all states and numerous crops; and maintaining the viability of private-sector delivery, which is far more efficient and effective than a government-managed alternative.
It is a packed agenda, and as the cornerstone of today’s farm policy, crop insurers have a lot to discuss. However, I fully expect us to do our part in supporting the other major Florida employer – tourism – while we are in town.
Tom Zacharias is president of National Crop Insurance Services, based in Overland Park, Kan. The guest column appeared on February 6, 2015 in the Fort Meyers News-Press and is available